Having sought views and suggestions on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 within the deadline of September 30 last, the joint parliamentary panel has now begun hearings on the proposed legislation. It is a highly controversial amendment, so seeking public feedback as part of pre-legislation consultation is a good move. How this process is conducted will reflect the sincerity of the government in instituting a better law. Four organizations from Assam among 13 organizations overall were invited to place their views on the bill at Parliament House Annexe on Thursday. Over 9,000 suggestions have reportedly been received from Assam, so other concerned organizations and individuals from this State are scheduled to be called phase-wise to the hearing. Considering the large number of suggestions sent from Assam, joint panel member and Congress MP in Rajya Sabha Bhubaneshwar Kalita has called for some hearings to be conducted in this State. This, if done, would send forth a positive message across Assam, which has suffered the most as far as the Centre’s past tinkering with citizenship laws is concerned. The NDA government’s proposed bill to grant citizenship to Hindus and other ‘minority-religious individuals’ from ‘Muslim-domited countries’ like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — will again impact Assam the most. If Assam was the only state in the country to have been hobbled with the obnoxious IM(DT) Act which made detecting foreigners well nigh impossible by shifting the burden of proof onto the complaint, it is now set to witness the Assam Accord rendered virtually null and void with lakhs of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh after 1971 becoming citizens with one stroke. So, how suggestions and complaints from political parties, organizations like the AASU and various literary bodies from this State are entertained — will in turn indicate whether the Centre is at all keeping an open mind on the issue.
The NDA government, after all, is proposing amendments to the country’s citizenship laws with far reaching implications. The sought for changes are in line with the BJP leadership’s explicitly stated agenda and 2014 electoral campaign promise — that India must be the default homeland for Hindu migrants from all over the world. Whether a bill motivated by such an agenda will stand court scrutiny later on, is another matter altogether. India is constitutiolly mandated to be secular with Article 14 guaranteeing equality to all persons. So how the Central government now goes about incorporating distinctions on religious grounds into citizenship laws, is a serious issue that needs be threshed out in all possible aspects. As India is not a sigtory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the Centre also needs to clearly work out who are migrants and who are refugees, and specifically tailor its policies vis-à-vis the two distinct categories. All contending views ought therefore be given a proper hearing — not doing so will prove true the suspicions that the public feedback process is an eyewash, that this government is hell-bent in ramming through its amendments through parliament. The citizenship amendment bill is already stirring up the politics in Assam with incendiary talk about ‘Hindus getting outnumbered’ unless Assamese Hindus and Bengali Hindus join forces and seek support from tribals and indigenous Muslims. Better sense must prevail, as the Assam Accord once sought to instill when it refused to distinguish between Muslim and Hindu foreigners. The country as a whole requires clear cut citizenship laws to be strictly implemented, irrespective of religion or race; it also needs well thought out policies to deal justly and humanely with both refugees and migrants.